What the Saddam Lynching Tells Us About Iraq

You have to wonder what President Bush would have made of the image — had he been shown the tape — of Saddam Hussein being strung up by a bunch of masked toughs, while all around the small crowd in the room could be heard victoriously chanting the name of Moqtada Sadr. (For an excellent description of the events and translation of what was being said, see my friend Nir Rosen’s great post great post at Iraqslogger.com, a daily news and analysis web site covering all things Iraq that he helped found — and is well worth bookmarking. In a symbolic tribute to just what the U.S. has achieved in Iraq, Saddam was essentially killed by a lynch mob of his enemies — indeed, one reason the current Iraqi government was in such a hurry to string him up was that the Sadr-Maliki alliance wanted the credit, over Shiite rivals, for slaying the former tyrant.

Amid all of this, we’re told, the Bush Administration is “making good progress” towards formulating a new Iraq policy. No doubt, although it’s a relatively safe bet that nothing they’re planning to do will reverse the slide. Saddam’s grim end merely confirms what has long been obvious: That sectarianism is the organizing principle of Iraqi society now, and that the United States no longer has any control over political events in Iraq.

No question the Saddam execution is viewed through the sectarian prism, and will only exacerbate the civil war — indeed, the U.S. could not have done a better job of ensuring his lionization in the eyes of Sunni Arabs throughout the region. (Not the first time the U.S. has given Saddam a leg-up, of course — Juan Cole offers an excellent summary of the long history of U.S. complicity in putting Saddam in power and keeping him there.) But the fact that he was executed now against the wishes of the U.S. is a perfect illustration of what the U.S. has created in Iraq — a political system over which it has no control, in which the leading elements are ultimately hostile to U.S. regional ambitions (although they’re willing and eager to use U.S. military support to their own political and sectarian ends), and which simply cannot be made to conform to U.S. goals and strategies.

Washington has made no secret of its frustration at the refusal of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to authorize a crackdown on the sectarian militia of his ally, Moqtada Sadr, and to marginalize the anti-American rabble-rouser — and also his refusal to do anything meaningful to coax the Baathists in the insurgency back into the fold.

Of course, before that the U.S. was equally frustrated with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and backed (or was it initiated?) efforts to get him removed (which brought Maliki to power, when the U.S. was hoping to get SCIRI’s Adel Abd’el-Mahdi into the job). And so the U.S. has been consorting with all and sundry in the hope of getting SCIRI, ironically the most pro-Iranian of all the Shiite parties but which appeals to the U.S. because it has largely cooperated and shares an enmity for Moqtada Sadr, to either take over the leadership of the Shiite Alliance or else to break with it and set up a new government in alliance with the Kurds and Sunnis. For some reason, the U.S. had convinced itself that they had the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for such a move, so when he nixed it and anything else that divides the Shiites, it became clear that the (frankly bizarre) idea of turning the longtime Iranian asset SCIRI into a pliant U.S. client regime in Baghdad quietly collapsed. Just for good measure, two of the Iranian officials arrested last week by U.S. forces in Baghdad accused of plotting attacks on Americans were picked up inside the compound of SCIRI leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who was being feted at the White House only two weeks earlier.

While the most likely new course to be announced by Bush in the couple of days is “surging” U.S. troops in Iraq, i.e. sending a few thousand more to help secure Baghdad. But that really is just a case of “staying the course,” because there’s no sign of any change in the political direction of the Iraqi government, without which sending more U.S. troops is pointless, or worse. The Shiite political leadership wants the troops to fight the Sunni insurgents; the Sunni politicians want the troops to protect them from the Shiite death squads — both communities remain sharply antagonistic to the U.S. presence.

In a thoughtful analysis of the Iraq Study Group report, the International Crisis Group makes clear the logical conclusion from the evidence presented in the study — although which could not possibly be made explicit in its conclusions without making Bush and Blair sound foolish:

All Iraqi actors who, one way or another, are involved in the country’s internecine violence must be brought to the negotiating table and pressed to accept the necessary compromises. That cannot be done without a concerted effort by all Iraq’s neighbours, which in turn cannot be done if their interests are not reflected in the final outcome. If Iraq can be saved at this late date, it will require three ambitious and interrelated steps:

  • A new forceful multilateral approach that puts real pressure on all Iraqi parties. The Baker-Hamilton report is right to advocate a broad International Support Group; it should comprise the five permanent Security Council members and Iraq’s six neighbours. But its purpose must not be to support the Iraqi government. It must support Iraq, which means pressing the government, along with all other constituencies, to make necessary compromises. The government and security forces should not be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered. They are but one among many parties to the conflict and not innocent of responsibility for much of the trouble. It also means agreeing on rules of conduct and red-lines for third-party involvement. Sustained multilateral diplomacy, not a one-off international conference is needed.
  • A conference of all Iraqi and international stakeholders to forge a new political compact. This is not a military challenge in which one side needs to be strengthened and another defeated. It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached. A new, more equitable and inclusive national compact needs to be agreed upon by all relevant actors, including militias and insurgent groups, on issues such as federalism, resource allocation, de-Baathification, the scope of the amnesty and the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. This can only be done if the International Support Group brings all of them to the negotiating table, and if its members steer their deliberations, deploying a mixture of carrots and sticks to influence those on whom they have particular leverage.
  • A new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran, end of efforts at regime change, revitalisation of the Arab-Israeli peace process and altered strategic goals. Mere engagement of Iraq’s neighbours will not do; Washington must clearly redefine its objectives in the region to enlist regional, and particularly Iranian and Syrian help. The goal is not to bargain with them, but to seek compromise agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which all can live.
  • That’s what the grownups would do. And the Bush Administration has made clear it won’t follow grownup advice. Instead, it plans to send more troops ostensibly to shore up a phantom fledgling democratic national unity government under attack by extremists (many of whom, in reality, are actually part of the government and its security forces).

    The moment the U.S. lost control of the process was when it first conceded to democratic elections to choose an Iraqi government. This is often mistakenly attributed to misguided missionary zeal on the part of the president: In reality, it was demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who made clear that J. Paul Bremer’s plans to have a constitution draw up by a government of his own choosing weren’t going to fly, and unless it was an elected government, the Shiites would rebel.

    It takes one to know one: My favorite moment of the whole Bush tenure came in this Dec. 2004 Soviet-style awarding of the Medal of Honor to former CIA chief George Tenet, Iraq war commander Gen. Tommy Franks, and former Iraq viceroy J. Paul Bremer for the “pivotal role” they had played in the “great events” in Iraq. Yes, yes, I know, I also wondered whether it was April 1 when I first read it…

    Once Iraqis could vote, the leaders the U.S. had attempted to install (from Chalabi to Iyad Allawi) were marginalized, and a number of them moved back to London. Those chosen by the electorate have proven unwilling to implement the U.S. strategy for holding Iraq together. Saddam’s death confirms how little control the U.S. now has over political events in Iraq. And that makes the number of troops it fields on the ground largely irrelevant to the outcome — except, of course, if the U.S. was willing to treble the number of troops it has there now and seize direct political control again. But even if it had the political will, it doesn’t have enough troops to do that.

    The problem, I think, in part derives from the fact that Cheney-Bush have not yet reconciled with the inevitability of quitting Iraq — I suspect that they still see those massive permanent bases built in Iraq playing the long-term role originally envisaged in the invasion (Jay Garner compared it to the Phillippines, where the U.S. maintained military bases for a century to fuel its Pacific Fleet; others made clear that Iraq would become the new Saudi Arabia because that country could no longer afford the domestic political cost of hosting massive U.S. bases… either way, it’s clear that Bush went in planning to stay.) I’m not expecting a new strategy from Bush in the coming days; I’m expecting new tactics, and even then, the shifts will be quantitative rather than qualitative.

    This entry was posted in Situation Report, Unholy War. Bookmark the permalink.

    24 Responses to What the Saddam Lynching Tells Us About Iraq

    1. Jorge says:

      “…the Sunni politicians want the troops to protect them from the Shiite death squads…”

      I remain convinced that the moment we leave Iraq it will boil over into civil war.

      Before we do leave, however, we should protect the Sunni minority and force the Shites to negotiate a peace. That is only a bandaid solution, though. There’s too much ill-will and too many forces involved here to expect a lasting peace – at least not unless we installed another version of Saddam.

      Saddam’s biggest mistake wasn’t invading Kuwait, as many suggest. It was trying to assasinate GHB. That was an insult to the Bush family that could not be allowed to stand given the Bush family’s ties to the Arab world.

      When the “experts” begin to understand the war in Iraq in these terms, then our calling off the dogs in the hunt for bin Laden will begin to make sense to them. The Saudi family was not about to let us capture and parade bin Laden through our justice system. Hussein? Well, he was expendable.

    2. Ziad says:

      The U.S.’ ability to influence events in Iraq will allways be dwarfed by Iran. Whatever government emmerges after the U.S. leaves will reflect that fact.

      The best Analogy I could think of is Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon. Israel was by far stronger than Syria, yet its attempt to to place a government in power collapsed and Syria was eventually back in charge. And the Israelis understood Lebanon a lot better than the U.S. understands Iraq.

      Of course there are many differences. The key difference being that while Syria really had no particular affinity for any Lebanese ethnic group, Iran will allways favor Iraqi shiites.

      But the basic principles are 1) a political solution is essential, indeed it’s the only thing that will matter and 2) the local power that’s ‘in the know’ is in a much better position to provide one.

      Tony, I’m curious if you think any Lebanon style reconciliation is possible sometime in post U.S. Iraq.

    3. Pat says:

      Quick correction: that was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, that was bestowed on the architects of disaster. (Although I keep hoping Franks someday will come out against the whole thing in keeping with his reported vulgar tirade on hearing he had to invade Iraq.)

      Also, I think you have an unclosed bold tag somewhere on your site.

    4. Bernard Chazelle says:

      Last month it was the turn of Natan Sharansky to get the medal of freedom!

      I guess Chalabi will get it next year.

    5. Fran Freidman says:

      Tony, OT I know but in the same geography: what is your organization doing putting one of the main architects of this mess in Iraq on the column masthead as a “star?” Bill Kristol.

    6. Alex Morgan says:


      Why not have Bill Kristol write a column for the NYT? Obviously, I think little of Kristol, but I believe it is better to have such views exposed. Since I almost never read Commentary or NR these days, it’s handy to see these freaks at the NYT.

      I for one think that every time such discredited figures as Kristol expound on their views, they are like a propaganda win for sane people. You never appreciate just how nutty such folks are, until you read them – they are their own worst press. Let them write.

    7. Bernard Chazelle says:

      Pat: I, too, noticed the weird font changes.

      Fran: I am with you there, but for collegiality’s sake it’s not quite fair to ask Tony to comment on that.

      Alex: I wish I were as optimistic. Kristol writes the most insane things in the most sane way, and many people might fall for it. His saving grace is that he’s a supremely dull writer, so hopefully he won’t last long.

      They also have Kinsley. He’s a smart guy and a good writer, though his reaction to the Downing Street Memo was disgraceful.

    8. Patrick Cummins says:

      From the International Crisis Group: “The goal is not to bargain with [Iraq’s neighbours], but to seek compromise agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which all can live.”

      Any conceivable deal would ratify the greatly enhanced influence and role of Iran in the region, and a concomitantly diminished one for the US. Can Bush/Cheney ever accept this? They seem prepared to follow any path, no matter how destructive, to avoid this outcome.

    9. Fran Freidman says:


      I see your point, understand it; however, we’ve had four years of not only Kristol’s et al views, but the consequences of the results of Kristol’s et al views devastate this country. Fox provides that outlet on a steady basis. I would much prefer trenchant NYT commentaries on why Kristol is wrong.


      You’re correct. So I amend my comment to being ‘strictly rhetorical’.

    10. Ed Marshall says:

      They also have Kinsley. He’s a smart guy and a good writer, though his reaction to the Downing Street Memo was disgraceful.

      His reaction to the initial and subsequent lancet reports was worse. He doesn’t understand stats at all, and his argument would lead to the logical conclusion that he doesn’t believe in Neilson ratings or exit polls. This wasn’t opinion, it was just absolutely wrong, yet he had staked out the respectable liberal position on that side. That seems to be his job.

    11. Pingback: More on Saddam « I’m Not Going to Do This Every Day

    12. Alex Morgan says:

      As a side note, Bush is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic with his shuffling of top military commanders.

      I know it’s an unpopular position, but I’m not too thrilled with the military making policy decisions wrt. Iraq. The problems are primerily political and not military. And sadly, to most in the military, well, they are holding a hammer and all problems look like nails. Let’s face reality. I’d be all for consulting the military on tactical matters, but strategy is or should be the responsibility of policy circles. As the old saying goes, war is too important a matter to leave to the generals… and even in tactics, generals have not historically always had the best record (WWI anyone?).

      The greatest support for this appalling war is among the military. They vote for Republicans and GWB in droves – far greater by percentage than the general public. Have you spent any time with the gungho crowd of these folks? I have. Personally I don’t give a flying intercourse about PC, but wow, talk about reactionary. More often than not, the opinions voiced are straight up fascism and nationalism of the extreme variety which would not be out of place in an SS unit (not that they’d recognize it as such, being on the whole poorly versed in history/political science). Again, I don’t want to paint with a broad brush – there are always those who are honorable and progressive etc., but that’s just the point, the progressive folks are IN THE MINORITY, and it is the majority who set the tone.

      So while it is an iron rule to “support the troops”, what exactly does that mean? I listen to the NPR or read various soldier blogs and opinion pieces by military folk – often straight from the field in Iraq. Talk about delusion. These are (by and large) the true “stay the course” believers. Now, some eventually learn their lessons, one IED at a time, but many more reach the opposite conclusion “we are treating the enemy with kid gloves, that’s why… if we had a free hand to torture them, we’d lick this problem in no time flat, it’s the damn liberals and the media who are tying our hands, bla, bla bla” – yes, I’ve heard and read that repeatedly. Funny, all the counterexamples in history, don’t seem to make an impact.

      It’s hopeless. I almost support the “surge” – just so that this argument can be put to rest. Otherwise it’ll be “the democrats didn’t give us troops, and that’s why Iraq was lost” (an argument made with Vietnam, and famously by the German right after WWI with the “stabbed in the back” lie). I say give them all the rope they want to hang themselves with. Perhaps, then we’ll finally be able to say: “you got *everything* you ever wanted, and you still failed miserably” – and maybe that defeat will have a silver lining in that it will forever discredit this kind of thinking. Of course, on second thought, I don’t want this, since they never learn anyhow – look at Vietnam. If ever there was a war to learn lessons from, well, that was it. Instead, we have the spectacle of some of the same people making the same mistakes – as if they took Vietnam as a blueprint of how to fail on a grand scale by repeating mistakes in every detail.

      The only question is how much treasure, blood and credibility will have to be lost before the inevitable happens. Bush is determined to make this process as painful as possible.

    13. ran says:

      So if the US really didn’t want Saddamm lynched yet why did they hand him over? To me Bushco protestations that they would have done it differently is just the usual post-fiasco spin these clowns engage in without fail.

    14. Bernard Chazelle says:

      Alex: I read a poll some time ago saying that the officer corps is almost 100% Republican but it’s a mixed bag for the enlisted soldiers. If anyone here has a link to such numbers, I’d like to see them.

      I see your logic for the Surge, but in matters of war I am the eternal pessimist. I don’t think there’ll ever be a moment any war supporter will say: “Ok, we tried the surge, it didn’t work. Game’s over.” They”ll always invent some new argument for staying.

      Bush’s plan is clear: he wants to run out the clock. If a Dem gets elected president, he/she will have to decide to pull the plug. Which they probably won’t. I see this war going on pretty much forever, barring a Tet Offensive like disaster.

      The Dems will get blamed anyway, so they should cut off funding now. And do it both for moral and tactical reasons.

      Which is why it won’t happen.

    15. Tony says:

      While I agree with Alex that the “surge” is doomed to fail, I don’t agree with the observation that Republican affiliation translates into support for Bush’s folly. On the contrary, most of the Republican foreign policy establishment, the realists, opposed this thing from the outset, and I suspect that if you asked military Republicans whether they identified more with Powell/Baker/Scowcroft or with the neocon clowns, you know what most would say… (not defending the fact that the realists did nothing to stop Bush, but they didn’t support this war and its underlying strategic concept)

    16. Alex Morgan says:

      Republican affiliation certainly heavily translates into support for Bush’s folly. All polls during the 2004 election showed heavier support for Bush among Repubs than among Dems for Kerry. Similarly, all along, support for the war was heaviest among the Repubs. Now, things may have changed somewhat in recent months so that not quite as many Repubs are baying for Iraqi blood (nobody wants to be associated with a failure, and as the ship sinks, the rats are scrambling) but let’s not forget that even today, if you are looking for support for Bush, look toward Repubs.

      On another note, the military has just sent letters encouraging re-enlistment to dead soldiers and wounded soldiers. Maybe a zombie army is going to be the winning tactic in Iraq. Bush and his henchmen are more and more resembling Hitler’s bunker in May of 1945… disconnected from reality, still believing in “victory” and commanding non-existent armies (composed of the living dead, apparently).

    17. Tony says:

      Alex, you’re missing my point: Republicans in the senior echelons of the military are not necessarily like the GOP rank and file — they’re strategic professionals, trained and experienced in the art of war, which is what makes them inclined more to realism than neo-con fantasies — the officer corps has been overwhelmingly Republican forever, but it was also overwhelmingly skeptical of military adventurism in the wake of Vietnam. I’m talking about them, not Republicans in general (haven’t you noticed that almost to a man, the neocon ideologues have never heard a shot fired in anger?)

    18. Alex Morgan says:

      Regarding neocons and shots fired in anger – I guess you’ve never seen Cheney fire with both barrels at those terrorist quails.

      OK, I didn’t realize you were talking about the “top military strategists”. Maybe you’re right. I don’t have any statistics to contradict your contentions, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure stats exist to prove conclusively one way or another… you could be right.

      In any case, overwhelmingly, it is not the top brass that’s getting shot at in Iraq. When I hear “support the troops”, I think that mostly refers to the grunts.

    19. Pat S. says:

      I just got into this military-political debate … having a bro who’s a Navy officer and also a lefty, and another friend who’s an Army officer and a moderate realist, I figured I’d offer some insight.

      I think Tony is right when he says that most military Republicans tend towards the realism school of thought, the adherents of which did not believe that an Iraq invasion was the right thing to do. Alex, it’s true that the military officer corps is very heavily GOP–my brother gets shit all the time for being a Democrat (mostly all in good fun)–but I think the ones you describe who believe we should “just nuke the fuckers” are more of the REMF type, the guys who can say that sort of thing without having to come face-to-face with the enemy.

      I think the truly scary guys, the ones who are the front-line professional killers, just keep their mouths shut. If they later go into politics, they turn into Colin Powell or Chuck Hagel. And while I think these dudes take a very cynical view of world politics and history, I also think what they most want to avoid is the needless death of their fellow soldiers, the only people who also understand what it’s like. Is Iraq such a situation? I sure think so, and I would imagine a silent majority of the front-liners do too.

    20. Pat S. says:

      Also, an anti-terrorist zombie army is a great freakin’ idea.

    21. brenda says:

      Editor & Publisher (“NYT Does Not Oppose Surge in Iraq” 1/8/07) quotes a recent Military Times poll of active members of the military. 35% approve of Bush Administration’s handling of the war. Two years ago 83% believed the war would be successful. Now only 50% believe that, also believe it will take 5 years to achieve that success. Only 41% said US should have invaded Iraq.

    22. LanceThruster says:

      Great piece, excellent insights. Thanks.

    23. Adventure says:

      Do you guys have a recommendation section, i’d like to suggest some stuff

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *